Guardians of the Galaxy is the first film that’s convinced me Marvel Studios might be able to make a go of this moviemaking thing longterm. That might seem ridiculous given the fact that the offshoot of Marvel Comics has had an enviable box office run ever since they decided to take their characters in the own hands, beginning with Iron Man, released in 2008. Though the projects are costly, their lowest worldwide gross with a film was still over $250 million, and the bulk of them have handily crossed the half-billion mark. Artistically, though, they’ve floundered just enough to cast reasonable doubts on how long they’d be able to last once the superhero trend started to fade. It’s not simply that some of the films suffered from muddled storytelling. It is also the sameness of the projects, a dedication to a sort of house style in keeping with the continuity-driven uniformity of the publisher’s output in the sixties and seventies, when they pushed past chief competitor DC Comics for a market supremacy that has continued with only the briefest of exceptions to this day. Marvel unmistakably knows what they’re doing, but there was a threat of redundancy that suggested it might eventually not be worth it for more discerning moviegoers to keep watching.
Mining an unlikely corner of their universe for story fodder has enlivened the daring and creativity of the studio. The Guardians of the Galaxy name has been around since 1969, but the iteration adapted for the screen first came together in 2008, as part of a star-spanning crossover storyline called Annihilation: Conquest, conceived by writers Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning. Iron Man and Thor weren’t exactly major figures in the broader pop consciousness before their recent movie adventures either, which still shouldn’t distract from how unlikely the Guardians are as blockbuster figures. It takes a marked bravery to believe that a movie with a sardonic, laser cannon-wielding space raccoon can succeed in a cynical age. And to further turn the project over to the minor cult hero director of Slither and Super is like diving headfirst without checking the contents of the murky water. All that risk, and the damn thing works like a minor movie miracle, everything coming together in such a way that Guardians of the Galaxy can make a claim to be the most purely enjoyable film Marvel has made.
So much of the film’s success is directly attributable to the wonderfully realized characters. As much fun as it’s been to watch Chris Pratt turn into the cheerful puppy dog version of a movie star, he’s actually the weakest performer in the film. He’s perfectly cast and yet a little out of his depth, especially when the filmmakers can’t quite definitively settle on who they wants his Star-Lord to be. It’s as if the most concentrated effort went into getting the other characters perfectly right, perhaps sensing the importance of making Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper, in what I’m prepared to assert is the best performance of his that I’ve ever seen) and the tall tree-being Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), possessor of an endearingly limited vocabulary, into more than one-note gags. Similarly there are surprising layers to the vengeful strongman Drax (Dave Bautista) and super-powered warrior woman Gamora (Zoe Saldana). The spirit and the humor of the film–and it is indeed very funny–spring from the believable progress and interaction of the characters as they move from misfits to heroes. It the plot occasionally has some mildly rickety points, they’re more than overshadowed by the bits of true inspiration and the general gung ho joy in the telling.
Maybe the most impressive part of the film is Gunn’s masterful skill in the many shifting tones. Co-credited with Nicole Perlman on the screenplay, Gunn successfully positions the film as slyly satirical while also engaging in a space adventure serious enough to build in some real stakes. He’s also able to pivot to a few genuinely poignant moments, even if they sometimes follow overly predictable pathways. The only stumbles arrive in the action set pieces, especially the large-scale mayhem that dominates the last reel. The vastness of space is at his disposal, but Gunn, somewhat against type, creates his finest work in the smallest moments. Guardians of the Galaxy, against all odds, prospers because of the winning details rather than the swelling spectacle. That alone is proof that maybe, just maybe, Marvel Studios is moving in the right direction.